Party ice

Tomorrow is the first day of winter. I can’t think of a better way to mark the transition than to cobble together a little post about ice.

Ice freezer, 7-11 store, Silver Spring, Maryland.

Party ice is the product you can buy in the freezers outside of convenience stores or inside supermarkets. This bulk ice product hails from a time before home refrigeration and convenience stores. Before mechanical refrigeration, ice was imported from New England and Canada to Mid-Atlantic and Southern states. At first, it traveled by boat; later, refrigerated rail cars carried the large blocks harvested from northern lakes and ponds.

In the Washington metropolitan area, ice arrived via the Potomac River. In the nineteenth century, large ice warehouses were built in Alexandria, Virginia, and Georgetown in the District. By the turn of the twentieth century, the ice industry had adapted to mechanical production methods and new transportation systems. Ice manufacturers began specializing production lines to meet demands from household consumers, businesses, and industry.

Party ice is a twentieth century product that originated in community ice distribution networks created by ice entrepreneurs. Ice was produced in plants and packaged for sale according to local health codes. In Alexandria, Virginia, the Mutual Ice Company dominated the industry. Founded in 1900 on the riverfront, the company eventually moved to the Potomac Yard rail yards where it built a large ice plant.

Mutual Ice Company logo.

The Mutual Ice Company produced bulk ice for sale to local Alexandria consumers and it iced railroad cars passing through the city that were filled with perishable freight: meat and vegetables. Consumers could get ice delivered to them or they could buy it at one of seven “ice stations” that the company built throughout the city. These operated between 1924 and 1955. After that, the company continued selling ice at its plant and in grocery store freezers until it stopped making ice in 1969.

Former Mutual Ice Company ice station (2008), Alexandria, Virginia. Photo by David Rotenstein.

Oliver Ashby Reardon obituary photo. Credit:

In 2008, I interviewed O. Ashby Reardon (1928-2011). Reardon’s family had established an ice wharf in Alexandria in the 1850s and he was the Mutual Ice Company’s last president. He attended the U.S Naval Academy and served for eight years in the U.S. Navy. Reardon returned to Alexandria after being discharged and he began working in his family’s ice plant. Reardon served in several executive positions with the firm until it closed in 1969. The following year the company changed its name to Mico, Inc., and continued to do business as a holding company for several of the older firm’s subsidiary enterprises.

We spoke about a lot of things in the two interviews, including party ice. The Mutual Ice Company initially sold fifty- and twenty-five pound bags of ice at its plant while twelve-pound bags were sold in a dozen vending machines placed in small wood frame shelters built inside the plant and delivered to locations throughout the city. Self-serve ice chests, according to Ashby Reardon Jr., were “made by the Lear Company that were just sitting out there in front of an entrance to the gas station where you could go in and buy some ice and then take it out and put it in your car.”

Alexandria required ice to be sealed in paper or plastic bags. Reardon explained, the ice was:

Sewed into paper bags and marketed through the same vending machines and there was one place where you could buy block ice and one place where you could buy crushed ice. It was actually – what we called party ice was ice that had the snow screened out of it and the pieces were I guess about half the size of an egg and they were screened out for those to be close to ice cube size so that there was not any snow in the bag and any waste.

In 1965, the company patented an ice cutting machine designed by its longtime engineer Charles W. Coblentz. The machine reduced a 300-pound block of ice to 12.5-pound blocks which then were marketed as twelve-pound blocks: “We sold them as twelve pounds because there was some, a little bit of loss in the cutting process with the snow that came out of the ice,” recalled Ashby Reardon Jr. By 1965 the company had about 90 vending machines and ice chests in northern Virginia within about a thirty-mile radius of the plant.

Ice cutting machine. U.S. Patent No. 3,261,381.

Like other anachronistic industries, though the Mutual Ice Company stopped producing its namesake product, it remained a business entity for several decades. By the time the company closed its plant in 1969, its profits came not from ice but from the other business lines (e.g., fuel oil) diversified into as a means of  adapting to widespread mechanical refrigeration in the freight industry and the increasing obsolescence of railroads as highway trucking came to dominate transportation after the Second World War. In 1970, the company changed its name to Mico, Inc., and continued to do business as a holding company for several of the older firm’s subsidiary enterprises.

Mutual Ice Company and refrigerator car icing at Potomac Yard Note the Mico Fuel sign above the plant’s storage building. Photo in the Alexandria Public Library’s vertical files.

Stay warm!

Note: Some of the material in this post originated in the 2011 report, Braddock Gateway Property Documentary Study by Boyd Sipe and David Rotenstein. The complete report is posted on the Alexandria city government website.

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